On a sunny afternoon in May 1973, a mariachi band was playing to a festive crowd in the UC Santa Cruz Quarry Amphitheater when César Chávez, one of the leading social activists of his day, took to the stage.
In what would be the first and largest of several campus rallies headlining Chávez and other United Farm Worker leaders, he thanked the hundreds of students and community workers who had helped with an ongoing campaign to improve the lives of farmworkers. Each time, he detailed the ongoing struggle and inspired them to help move the cause forward.
The legacy of César Chávez, who would have been 90 years old this Friday, includes deep and lasting relationships with many UC Santa Cruz alumni, faculty, and staff, whose lives were changed through the nonviolent farmworker movement that started in the ’60s and continues today.
“For me it was really meaningful to have him come to the campus,” said Lisa Solinas, who helped organize the 1973 rally as an active member of MEChA de UCSC, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan, a student group that, in 1973, had already spent years organizing and leafleting on behalf of farmworkers.
A member of Chicanos for Health Education and the campus Huelga (strike) Committee, Solinas had volunteered at a free farmworker clinic at the first UFW headquarters in Delano. During the school year, she joined other students on the picket line and canvasing dorms.
“I was going out two to three times a week to boycott the liquor stores, to boycott Gallo wine. Sometimes we were standing out there in the pouring rain,” Solinas said.
Now the medical director of three low-income clinics in Santa Paula, Solinas remembers how Chávez wanted to bring everyone into the fold. “I think he was so influenced by Gandhi and the desire for his movement to be a peaceful one for change,” she said.
In the years that followed that first jubilant rally, which drew a crowd of 800 to 1,200 people, Chávez visited the campus for at least three more packed rallies at critical junctures for the movement in 1976 and 1985. He also visited countless times for intimate classroom discussions where he shared his passion for nonviolent social justice.
“UCSC was a gold mine of volunteers,” said Carlos LeGarrette, a former assistant to Chávez who attended the 1973 rally and later founded Cesar Chávez Service Clubs in San Diego, which continues to work with UC Santa Cruz alumni. “They were young individuals who were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and wanting to change the world. The farmworkers gave them a place where they could do so nonviolently. The college students were fantastic volunteers in the movement.”
Bridging farmworkers and academics
Olga Talamante (Cowell, ’73), who grew up in a farmworker family and was a member of MEChA and the Huelga Committee, served as emcee of the event.
“More than anything, it was a hopeful time,” said Talamante, executive director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation in Burlingame, a scholarship and leadership program. “We were so excited that he came and that so many people showed up. We were putting ourselves on the line and getting other people to do the same to support this very noble cause.”
UC Santa Cruz, just seven years old, had an activist campus culture. Students had marched military recruiters off the campus and protested the Vietnam War en masse. Many students chose the UFW as an academically supervised field study placement.
“We were ambitious,” recalls Richard Vasquez (Stevenson, ’73), a MEChA member at the rally with family ties to the UFW. Vasquez, who returned to the campus after graduation to work many years in the campus Educational Opportunity Programs, recalls the hard work of organizing. “Before he came, we were on the phone. We knew people to reach and we used the phones like crazy in those days.”
For Ron Pease (Stevenson, ’73, anthropology), who was not part of the campus organizing community, the rally gave him momentum to become more of an activist later in life. “It was certainly part of the cultural atmosphere then,” Pease said.
Chávez, who often spoke to classes as small as 20 students, showed them that someone could be a scholar and an activist, said Mike Rotkin, former Community Studies lecturer who attended the rally. “He believed education was the way to change the world, but showed them you could do social activism while in school. The fact that you could do both was an eye opener.”
“César Chávez had a tremendous impact on students and faculty at UCSC over the years,” Rotkin said.
Paul Ortiz, a former UFW organizer and UC Santa Cruz Community Studies professor, points to Latin American and Latino Studies and Community Studies as two programs that were heavily impacted by the UFW movement. Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and associate professor of history at the University of Florida, will be returning to campus May 16, for the 14th annual César Chávez Convocation.
This year the annual convocation will shift from its usual keynote speaker format to an interactive panel discussion focusing on organizing and how to bridge diverse social movements.
“If you look at the grape and lettuce boycotts, ultimately he brought millions of people together — brown people, white people, Asian Americans,” Ortiz said. “The real achievement was unity across lines. We’re trying to figure out how to bridge these enormous divides.”
The Chávez legacy is especially important today because the immigrant community feels under attack, said Katiuska Pimentel Vargas, a fourth-year legal studies and politics student and front desk assistant at the UC Santa Cruz Ethnic Resource Center.
“Chávez continues to be relevant today,” she said. “His legacy shall remain alive. His ideologies for justice continue to inspire and empower our communities.”